Parents were invented to make children happy by giving them something to ignore
Day Three, Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Walking around the French Quarter we decided to stop off at the iconic (and beautiful) St. Louis Cathedral as a peaceful respite from the heat and a nice place to write for a bit. This is some of what I wrote there.
The Devotion Machine
The Cathedral was designed – as all were – to draw the eyes upward, the attention and ultimately, the soul, toward heaven.
At first the peasants felt their rough clothes, callused hands, and freshly scrubbed skin acutely – feeling out of place, uneasy, and embarrassed at their poverty and the effects of a difficult and dangerous life. But the calm and quiet reverence would wear away their feelings of unease and they would accept the fact the opulent gilt statuary, soaring columns, and ceiling frescoes of Saints and the Christ peering down, magnanimous, as if through gaps in the clouds, were all intended for them. Each individual worker feeling as if this vast impressive building – this Machine for Devotion – was designed, constructed, and decorated for him and him alone. A personal miracle that helped him forget the world and dream of a higher place.
At least for a few precious seconds.
Children in the Cathedral
Down the center aisle two children – a small boy and his younger sister, almost a toddler – hopped along, playing a game of leaping contrasting floor tiles in a complicated very personal and mysterious children’s pattern. Their feet clomped and echoed through the vast silent space. All the supplicants stared in vexation.
“They think they own the place,” everyone thought to themselves – some daring to mumble out loud.
And that’s the horror of growing up, isn’t it. At that young age everyone owns the world. Over the next years those kids will come the slow horrifying realization that they own nothing.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.
Today’s story, for day seventeen – The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury
Read it online here:
Today’s is a story I have read before – but it was so long ago I don’t remember it – so it counts as fresh. “The Veldt” was first published as “The World the Children Made” in 1950 – but it was later included in the anthology “The Illustrated Man” in 1951. I read that book as a child (and saw the movie – which “The Veldt” is in also) – so I know I’ve read it before. I do have a memory of the movie version – maybe that wiped out the written word.
At any rate, even though the story is almost seventy years old (wow!) it could be written today. The only thing that dates it are the prices – a state of the art luxury automated home cost thirty thousand dollars – the author obviously intended that to seem like a lot of money.
The story is about the evils that can befall you if you buy into luxury too much and lose sight of the real world. For these parents, the real world gets in through the artificial luxury and bites them on the ass (literally). Oh, and it’s no coincidence that the kid’s names are Peter and Wendy (as in Pan and Darling).
“Everything. Where before they had a Santa Claus now they have a Scrooge. Children prefer Santas. You’ve let this room and this house replace you and your wife in your children’s affections. This room is their mother and father, far more important in their lives than their real parents. And now you come along and want to shut it off. No wonder there’s hatred here. You can feel it coming out of the sky. Feel that sun. George, you’ll have to change your life. Like too many others, you’ve built it around creature comforts. Why, you’d starve tomorrow if something went wrong in your kitchen. You wouldn’t know how to tap an egg. Nevertheless, turn everything off. Start new. It’ll take time. But we’ll make good children out of bad in a year, wait and see.”
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this story to the one from day six, The Semplica-Girl Diaries. Both are the stories of parents trying to give their children the best the world has to offer, and failing terribly. Both are brought down by their children (one set on purpose, the other as an unintended consequence) as a result of an extravagant purchase – a present – done with the best of intentions.
And we all know what road those pave.
“There was something about clowns that was worse than zombies. (Or maybe something that was the same. When you see a zombie, you want to laugh at first. When you see a clown, most people get a little nervous. There’s the pallor and the cakey mortician-style makeup, the shuffling and the untidy hair. But clowns were probably malicious, and they moved fast on those little bicycles and in those little crammed cars. Zombies weren’t much of anything. They didn’t carry musical instruments and they didn’t care whether or not you laughed at them. You always knew what zombies wanted.”
― Kelly Link, The Living Dead
I have been suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block and have been spending too much time staring at a blank screen, waiting in vain for some sort of a useful idea to come bubbling up from… well, from wherever useful ideas bubble up from. Of course, the staring doesn’t last very long until it is replaced by silly web-surfing. You know how that goes.
So I was wasting time by GoogleMap StreetViewing (I’m no fan of the current fashion of converting tech nouns into verbs, such as in the phrase of “Netflixing through Mad Men,” but this is what life is in this best of all possible worlds with) places that I used to live and I came up with this shot:
First, it’s interesting that in my old neighborhood they even have GoogleMaps StreetView in the alley. Let that sink in for a minute. Not only did the Google car drive down the street taking photos willy-nilly to post for all to see, but then it proceeded to creep down the alley in back of the houses, doing the same thing. The alleys there were extra-wide (the kids used to cone them off at the end of the block and play roller hockey on the concrete) but… just sayin’.
What I thought was cool is that tree there. The big one in the corner of what used to be my yard.
My son Nick (now in his final classes at Duke University) was a toddler. He was born in East Dallas, a few miles north of this spot, and we moved before our second son, Lee (now a financial analyst in New Orleans) was born eighteen months later. I’m pretty sure the tree was planted before Lee was born, so Nick would have been about a year old.
I took Nick down to the Dallas Arboreteum for a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, I discovered they were giving out free trees. I picked up a Live Oak planted in a recycled coffee can and brought it home, intending to plant it in the yard of our then-new-to-us home.
It looked substantial in the can, but after digging the hole and getting rid of the container the tree was only about an inch and a half high. It was dwarfed by the weeds that surrounded it. Everybody thought it was ridiculous and that I was an idiot for planting such a tiny sprig.
Still, despite the ridicule (probably because of the ridicule) I stuck it out. I carefully marked out the area around the twig to make sure it wasn’t mowed over or trampled upon. I watered it faithfully and tended it as best I could.
And, wonder of wonders, it grew. Fast. It grew like a weed. I talked to a friend that is a landscape architect and he said, “The smaller a tree is when you plant it, the bigger it will be in ten years.” Something that small doesn’t suffer the shock of transplantation, which sets a tree way back.
A few years later, it was already as high as my head. Putting in a new fence, the wind caught a panel and yanked it out of my hands. It landed on the tall, but still thin tree, smashing it flat. I was horrified.
I carefully raised the reedy trunk back up and staked the tree in position. I expected it to die, but, surprise, it didn’t miss a beat.
And now look at it. It’s one of the largest trees in the neighborhood. When we moved in, the block was thick with fast-growing “junk” trees – put in by the original developer to give quick green. Those have all now (mostly) succumbed to disease and are either gone or skeletal ghosts.
The sturdy oak is still growing.
I’m proud of the fact that I planted that tree (also proud that I got it for free). We moved out about ten years ago, when our kids were in Middle School. Nobody in the neighborhood knows this story, but I do, and that’s what’s important.
It’s also cool that the tree is the same age as my kids. If you have little ones – go out and plant a tree in your yard, or a park, or somewhere that needs one. The decades go by faster than you imagine is possible and a sturdy oak will rise to mark the passage of time with some welcome shade.
Previously in the Nasher XChange series:
- Flock in Space, Nasher XChange, Entry One of Ten
- X , Nasher XChange, Entry Two of Ten
- Fountainhead , Nasher XChange, Entry Three of Ten
- Moore to the Point, Nasher XChange, Entry Four of Ten
- Buried House, Nasher XChange, Entry Five of Ten
- dear sunset, Nasher XChange, Entry Six of Ten
I didn’t have to go very far to visit Alfredo Jaar’s Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born) at the Nasher. All I had to do was walk across the garden to the structure made of pine and plastic, tinted green. It was newly constructed and the timber still smelled of moist-cut forest. With a raised wooden floor reached by some wooden steps and a row of folding canvas director’s chairs arranged along the walls it was a tranquil, peaceful spot – separated from the din and hustle of the city both by its walls and the insulating layer of the Nasher garden itself.
I sat down and waited… waited to hear something….
Even though I only had to walk a few feet to get to the art the day still counted as a bike ride day – I had ridden the DART rail from Richardson to downtown and ridden over to the Bishop Arts District to meet some folks – and we rode back across the Jefferson Viaduct to the Nasher. It was a beautiful day, even though I had to fight the State Fair crowds on the train.
We were there for a lecture on the Nasher XChange exhibition – ten works of art spread out over the vast expanse of Dallas. As I have said before, the lecturers kept talking about how big and sprawling Dallas was (true, of course) and of the many miles in a car necessary to travel to the sites. This, I knew was not necessarily so – though it took a paradigm shift to understand that it was not only possible, it was fun, to move around the city using only feet, a bicycle, and a DART pass.
After all, I was sitting there in the lecture (sweating a bit) after having traveled from Richardson, to Oak Cliff, and back to downtown without getting in a car.
And I decided to see all ten without firing up an internal combustion engine.
The exhibition was in honor of the Nasher’s tenth anniversary. I could not look at Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born) without thinking of the time I came to the Nasher with my own son only a few months after it opened. He posed with some of the sculptures, I wrote it up in my old journal The Daily Epiphany and was able to rewrite it as a magazine article and sold it to Richardson Living. The Nasher sent me some free tickets.
Years later, we came back and I took some more pictures. Lee is bigger now.
Now, back to sitting in Alfredo Jaar’s room of wood and green plastic. It is quiet, only the murmur of some folks talking and an occasional foot tread. Sunlight streams in from the open door and the skylights overhead, mixing with the emerald glow from the translucent panels.
Suddenly, there is a sound, recorded and amplified, pouring from unseen speakers. It is an odd sound, almost unearthly. It isn’t really a cry… but it is. It is the recorded first sound of a newborn baby. The exhibit will record the first utterances of newborns in three Dallas hospitals and replay these ever day at the same time they were born. This has only been going on for a short time, so you have to wait for the sounds, but they should grow until mid-February when there will be a cacophony of first cries.
From the Nasher Website:
New York, New York
Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born)
2001 Flora St.
Nasher Sculpture Center
An installation that celebrates newborns and their limitless futures as Dallas citizens, bringing their voices together in a touching, symphonic experience.
Jaar’s project is inspired by what it means for a museum to celebrate an anniversary: What does it mean to be born, grow and then reflect back on 10 years of life? Most importantly, how can an institution like the Nasher Sculpture Center acknowledge the community it is a part of? Instead of reflecting on important institutional moments, Jaar intends to celebrate the births of newborn citizens and the limitless possibilities of their futures. Inside a pavilion designed by Jaar and located in the Nasher Garden, visitors will hear recordings of the first cries of babies born in Dallas between October 1, 2013 and February 1, 2014.
In collaboration with Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, Methodist Dallas Medical Center and Parkland Health & Hospital System, the sounds of the first moments of life will be recorded and uploaded to the pavilion. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the recordings will be played each day at the precise times of the births and new recordings will be added continuously. The diversity of voices and their intermittent occurrence within the space create an ever-changing musical composition that provides simple yet profound reminders of our city’s continuing growth. For the hundreds of families that choose to become a part of this artwork, the Nasher Sculpture Center will provide special memberships to the museum – a one-year Giacometti Level Membership for the participating families and a first-ever Lifetime Membership for the babies.
I dug around on my hard drive and found the journal entry I wrote on Saturday, May 1, 2004 – about the visit that Lee and I paid to the newly-opened Nasher. Here’s the text of the entry.
The Daily Epiphany
Saturday, May 01, 2004
The Nasher Sculpture Center
Were art to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness.
—-José Ortega y Gasset
Even though it’s been open since last October, I haven’t had the chance to go visit the new Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas. I wanted to go and I wanted to take Lee. The other day, I asked him if he wanted to see, “The best sculpture in the world.” He replied, “Dad, I sort of like sculpture; those cows and horses in front of the car show we saw downtown, they were really cool.” Still, though I ached to see the place and Lee wanted to go too we are so busy I haven’t been able to put together the time. It costs ten bucks to get in so it’s not a drop by proposition; for that much cash I want to take my time.
This weekend was soccer-full, so I didn’t think we’d be able to make it. All night Friday was full of booming storms, the sky lit up light electric fireworks, the wind blowing bending trees and whipping clouds of water through the neighborhood – real rainout weather. At dawn this morning the phone started ringing with the cancellation news – the games in Arlington, the games in Mesquite, even the games in various spots that Nicholas had agreed to ref (he’s trying to save enough money to buy a portable DVD player) were all called off due to submerged fields. Although the sky was overcast, dreary, and featureless slate gray, the rain stopped by ten and the day, though a bit chilly, was passable and Lee and I took off for the new sculpture center – driving to White Rock and catching the DART train downtown.
I had heard good things about the place but upon walking in and seeing it up close and personal I was totally blown away. It is magnificent.
The building that houses the inside part of the collection is at the north end of the site. It is an incredible construction of light – steel, pale stone, and glass arranged in a series of feathery pavilions full of stunning art. We took a swing through a visiting show of Picasso work, arranged alongside Nasher’s own Picasso pieces. We didn’t stay inside very long (I knew we’d come back and look closer) because, as beautiful as it is, the building’s most stunning function is as a frame for the sculpture garden outside and the allure of that green sward was irresistible.
Lee sitting on Scott Burton’s Schist Furniture Group (Settee with Two Chairs) near the northern end of the garden. In the far background you can see one of the curved pavilions of the main building.
The Nasher Sculpture Center sits right in the heart of the city; at the crossroads of giant busy screaming highways (three different interstates and two state highways cross within a mile of the center), at the feet of clusters of towering glass, stone, and steel office buildings, and with bustling crowds of workers packing the sidewalks and tunnels of a monstrous center of commerce. One rectilinear patch of land is yanked from this ugly knot of hustle and bustle and transformed into a peaceful oasis of three-dimensional art. At first, you don’t even notice the sculptures dotting the lawn. The trees, the grass, bits of stone, pools and sprays of water are art enough. Only after you drink in this unexpected bucolic landscape do you notice the other artwork – the arranged piles of steel, stone, or bronze that are carefully arranged among the rooms marked out by the careful plantings of trees, bamboo, and areas of water.
Lee and I walked around grinning like idiots. It was wonderful.
I liked this spot. To the right is Eve, by Auguste Rodin, the rectangular piece with round holes is Squares with Two Circles (Monolith) by Barbara Hepworth¸ and the copper-gold colored work on the left end of the pool is Working Model for Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae by Henry Moore. Beyond the green reeds to the right, you can see the dark rectangle which is the entrance to Tending (Blue) – the gray stone on the far right side is the outer wall of the installation of the work itself.
My favorite piece might have been the installation Tending (Blue) by James Turrell. We walked into a little opening lit by odd, shifting colors into the wall at the north end of the garden. The passage made a right turn and opened into a small room lined with dark stone benches. The walls on the upper half were featureless and smooth. A gray skylight lighted the whole chamber. The effect was strange and very peaceful. I liked it a lot.
Lee inside of James Turrell’s Tending (Blue).
Lee and I left the chamber and walked back up the garden and inside the building. We wandered downstairs and into the auditorium where a film was showing. It told the story of Raymond Nasher and his late wife, how they started out building Northpark Mall, acquired a fortune, and then became premiere collectors of modern sculpture. Mr. Nasher talked about his life, his wife, and his passion for the new sculpture center. The film then showed the construction of the center, how a handful of visionary architects and a few thousand men in hard hats converted a grimy downtown parking lot (I’ve parked there many times, put my quarters or dollar bills into a rusty numbered slot) into a thing of great value and beauty. They talked a lot of how it will be there forever. The film was fun and interesting – it really helped me appreciate the place.
On opening day Raymond Nasher said, “I put Patsy (his wife, the collector, who had passed away a couple years before) in charge of the weather today, and, as you can see, it’s beautiful.
One thing was odd, though. On the part of the film that covered opening day, Nasher and Turrell themselves went into the Tending (Blue) chamber that Lee and I had walked out of only minutes before. The benefactor and the artist sat on the benches and looked around. The skylight rectangle in the ceiling wasn’t gray like we saw it, but a deep cerulean blue.
“What’s up with that?” I asked.
“Let’s go back and check it out,” Lee said.
We hiked back down and entered the chamber again. The skylight was still gray. Something didn’t look right, though. I stood under it, looking up, trying to figure out what I was seeing and how it could change colors so dramatically. I was halfway convinced that it was a rectangle of light projected on the ceiling by some hidden apparatus (the upper walls are washed in subtle changing color from hidden computer controlled LED’s) when I was suddenly struck between the eyes with a big, cold drop of water. I wiped my face in surprise and looked down at some small pools of water at my feet.
“That’s weird, Lee,” I said, “I can’t believe it, but this roof is leaking.”
I looked back up, trying to find the telltale discoloration of a water leak, when, with a sudden shock, I realized what the hell I was actually looking at. That wasn’t a skylight, that wasn’t a projected rectangle at all, it was simply a big hole in the ceiling. I was looking directly at the sky. Once my eyes and my brain were in sync I could see the subtle variation of the clouds passing by overhead. The edges of the hole must have been cut back like razors – there was no visible frame around the opening, simply a featureless rectangle of light. It was amazing.
That’s why the rectangle looked blue in the film – it was a cloudless day. Now I want to go back. I want to go at sunset… I want to figure out how to go at dawn. The city sky at night… will it be brown? I want to sit in there during a rainstorm. I especially want to go there on that rarest of Texas days, a snowstorm.
Lee and I wandered around for a long time; we took a bunch of pictures (I have material for quite a few entries from the camera – hope y’all don’t get sick of them) and had, all in all, a wonderful time.
We were looking at a few last pieces up by the entrance, getting ready to leave, when I noticed an older balding man in a tan leather coat come into the building. He was alone and nobody said anything to him as he walked slowly past the desks and into the center itself.
“Lee, look who that is,” I whispered.
“Dad! That’s him!”
It was Raymond Nasher himself – the guy who had built the place, the guy that owned all the sculptures. There was no doubt about it – we had seen several long interviews with him in that film and I was sure who he was. He passed through the Picasso exhibit on into the gallery that held the greatest concentration of smaller sculptures.
I watched as he moved through the displays stopping at a half-dozen pieces. He’d gaze closely at each, intently examining it for a few seconds and then move on. What must be going through his mind? In the film we had seen the men moving the works from Nasher’s private house. These are works of art that have spent years, sometimes decades, in his private home. They must feel so familiar to him… bring back so many memories. Now he has to walk among strangers to view his own prized possessions – the pieces that he and his wife spent their lives finding, the collection they put together together.
I wanted to say hello to him – to thank him, but it didn’t seem right, especially inside where it was so quiet. I decided if he walked outside I’d speak to him but he descended a flight of stairs and went through the glass doors into the private management offices.
Double Glass, by Ray Lichtenstein
I was a wonderful afternoon for me, and I hope for Lee too. I was very glad he went with me. There was a lot of talk in the film how the Nasher Sculpture Center will become a mecca for art lovers all over the world especially when combined with the Dallas Museum of Art right across the street. Now, on the day we were there, there weren’t too many folks – maybe the weather. That was fine for the day; it gave Lee and I a nice chance to see the place at our leisure and not have to fight the crowds. Still, I feel my life is a little better simply for having gone to that place, and I hope you will go there someday too.